Servant leadership works well in agile projects because the stakeholders involved the agile development team, the product owner, project manager, and the ScrumMaster are typically extremely knowledgeable about the product and are operating in a knowledge intense environment as knowledge workers. Agile teams do not require the heavy-handed micromanaging commonplace in industries where unidirectional instructions and commands are dictated from those who know to those who don’t know but must carry out the actions. Knowledge workers are those with the skills, mental capacity, and wherewithal to carry out actions and figure out what to do, especially in circumstances like agile projects where there aren’t prescribed procedures in which to follow or perform. What these workers need is less of someone telling them what to do and more of someone to make sure the path to performance is clear and they have the tools necessary to succeed.
The tools necessary to succeed are those tools and techniques of agile project management and other disciplines that enable the agile team to progress forward and towards the objective without too much slowing down of that progression — meaning without cumbersome bureaucracy and administrative tasks.
When a servant leader shields the team from interruptions and distractions the team has more time to focus on the true work at hand. The work that requires their skills and attention. Since agile projects are predominantly mental due to being conducted by knowledge workers, the breaking of concentration can be detrimental to or at least slowdown production. Allowing team members to be thrown between various things needing their attention and having them work on random things is not helpful. Even if you feel you can multitask, there is research to the contrary. Randomization — especially if multiple team members are sent on the same distraction or “fire drill” — and other requests sidetrack progress.
A servant leader can work to shield any direct requests to the agile development team and channel the request as best they can. Whether that be directing it to the product owner or with metrics, reports, or informational radiators or any other method, the buffer established and enforced pays off. Even little distractions can derail productivity; multiple little distractions create major distractions.
In our Employee Benefit app, Jax fields all the questions from business representatives. He collects and responds to all emails coming in and out, and sets no expectations for when answers may be forthcoming. Jax is the one who decides the best time to seek answers and close requests. Likewise, the team is collocated to support each other. Working together and nearby, even if at times it might be viewed as distracting, is definitely the best setting for the team to operate in.
Ensuring a collocated arrangement is available is another example of servant leadership. A project manager is removing the physical barriers that may limit the development team’s ability to collaborate and be productive. What a servant leader is removing or blocking is dependent on the project and the organization. This could be the administrative overhead required by the larger enterprise. In our project, the project manager handles all the nonvalue to the project recording and externally required time and resource documentation so that the development team can focus on more needful efforts.
As we discussed in the empowering the team, the agile project manager is setting up the most productive and empowering environment for the team to work and succeed in. Complementary to that is the maintaining of the general welfare for the group. By building the most effective, productive project environment there is also the need to have the most productive people in those environments. We are all human. We all have similar humanistic desires to enjoy our work, thrive on challenges, and rejoice in successes. A good servant leader seeks to genuinely take care of his team. seeks the best available resources to support the team. Whether that resource is technology the team needs to be more productive or running to pick up dinner for everyone on late nights.
Rejoicing on the successes may not seem like much, but even a little gratitude goes a long way. If it is sincere and appropriate, recognition of an accomplishment stokes the fire which energizes our efforts and our sense of purpose.
The concept and practice of servant leadership are fundamental to agile project management.